About 8 years ago I came across an ad in the newspaper selling ‘authentic Mongolian yurts’. Intrigued, I showed the ad to Molly. It gets a little cramped in our 1,100 sf home when we have visitors and a yurt sounded like it would make a perfect guesthouse for us. ( A yurt is a large circular tent- about 300 square feet. Nomads use them as their housing moving them as they follow their herds across the steppes of Asia. They are actually called gers in Mongolia but we’ll stick with the term westerners are more familiar with.)
Molly: This is when we were getting really good at disposing of our disposable income.
Mike: Good times! We bought the hot tub that year too.
The sellers were a young couple who had just returned from Mongolia after a Peace Corps-like tour. After staying in a few yurts there they liked them so much that they wanted to bring one home. In Mongolia there is no ‘yurt store’ If you want the center poles you go to the house of the center pole maker. Same thing for the walls, cover and the rest of it. After sourcing all the parts they found out that it made more sense financially for them to fill a shipping container with several yurts rather than to pay almost the same amount to ship one back to the US. They wanted to sell the extras and keep one for themselves. I told them that we were very interested in getting one but before we plunked down several thousand dollars for this thing we wanted to see what we would be getting.
They told me that they had one of the yurts set up about five hours away from us in Colorado that we could go look at. With the girls away for the weekend, we made an epic one day field trip complete with food poisoning for both of us out to their land to check out the yurt. They weren’t there. We just let ourselves in and were immediately sold. All the woodwork was elaborately painted in beautiful traditional designs. The space was cozy and inviting. After 15 minutes of soaking up the atmosphere we had made up our minds that we wanted one and hastily retreated in search of a bathroom (again).
There was a fair amount of process involved in getting the yurt errected. We needed to make a flat spot on our sloping land. I generally try to do my own excavating by hand. It’s like a free gym membership. But clearing and leveling 400 square feet was a bit much so I hired a guy with a backhoe to do the dirt work. After we had a flat and level piece of land we needed to build a platform for the yurt to sit on. We wanted to provide our house guests a bit more class than a dirt floor. Trying to get it done as cheap as possible (as usual) I laid out heavy tar paper on the ground and then a grid of pallets. I covered them with a layer of 1″ Styrofoam insulation and then screwed down a 1/2″ plywood deck. After we painted the platform we were ready to put the yurt up.
I imagine that if you grew up in a yurt and helped put it up and take it down every couple of weeks that things would go pretty smoothly when it’s yurt putting up day. When you’ve only been in a yurt once for 15 minutes, are surrounded by a truckload of yurt parts and your yurt erecting knowledge is contained in a set of xeroxed instructions, yurt putting up in day is a little rocky.
The main structure of the yurt is a pair of columns that hold up a massive 5 foot diameter ring that sits in the center of the tent and holds everything up. One hundred and eight rafter poles radiate from this central ring and sit on an outer lattice wall made from lots of strips of wood tied together with lots and lots of bits of camel rawhide.
The central ring stands about 8 feet high and the roof slopes down to the outer wall which is about 4 feet high. The walls come in 5 sections plus a door frame. The lattice sections get tied together and held secure with straps that tie around the outside of the wall to the door frame. The rafter poles are run from pockets in the central ring and sit on the top edge of the lattice wall. A little loop of string ‘secures’ the ends of the poles to the lattice. We started putting the poles in and everything was going fine but when we got halfway around the circle the space from the center ring to the wall was just a little too long for the poles. We tried to scootch the wall closer and the 50 poles we had installed came crashing down! We played Laurel and Hardy for a couple of hours putting up some poles and then having them come clattering down on us as we worked our way around before we realized that we needed to tighten the straps on the outside of the wall to decrease its diameter in order to to get the poles to finally fit.
Mike: One of our friends came out to help.
Molly: He begged to help. We all had this romantic vision of building the yurt. In our minds we were nomads for the day. It was adventurous and fun.
Mike: I think after the spokes started coming down for the second time the romanticism wore off.
Molly: The heat of the day didn’t help either!
We finally got the wooden structure up and secure. After congratulating ourselves repeatedly we moved on to the coverings. The first layer was a muslin liner. This went on the outside of the structure but was what you would see as the walls and ceiling from the inside. Traditionally people use heavy wool blankets as insulation for the next layer. Lacking a crapload of wool insulation or any yaks to get it from we opted for styrofoam. We custom fit a layer of 1″ styrofoam panels to the outside of the yurt. It was a challenge getting the 4′ x 8′ panels to accommodate a circular structure with a cone shaped roof. We taped all the styrofoam in place with duct tape to hold it down while we put the heavy canvas “waterproof” covering over the insulation. After the canvas cover was wrestled on we put a final light muslin sun guard over it. The sun guard was supposed to be a sacrificial outer layer to protect the canvas from UV damage. A pair of ropes were tied around the circumfrence of the whole thing to secure all the covers and add more support. We were finished! …….almost…. sort of……not really.
After all the covers were on there was still a 5′ hole in the middle of the roof. Heat and smoke goes out and light comes in to the yurt through this 5′ central hole at the top. The simplest way to control the inner climate of the yurt is with a large flap of canvas that gets tied to outer straps. You can adjust the straps and the flap to open and close the hole as you wish. We started with the canvas flap but it was awkward to use and kept getting blown off in the 50 mph gusts of wind we get in the spring. I quickly decided to build a skylight to cover the hole. It would sit on the roof covering the hole, keep the weather out and and let light in. It was an elaborate 8 sided self supporting cone with a central vent and plexiglass panels. I cut the plexiglass panels to look like flower petals and painted the entire thing gold. It was awesome! It was going to look like a giant lotus flower sitting on top of the yurt. However, once it was up on the roof you couldn’t see it from the ground. Oh well.
Once we had finally weatherproofed the yurt we moved inside and started tricking out the interior. We wanted it to feel like an exotic hideaway. Molly made an inner liner of red and gold silk that hung like a curtain around the inside wall. It was gorgeous. We found several candle lanterns with fancy metal work which I wired to become hanging lamps. We constructed an elaborate mosaic quasi mandala on the floor under the wood stove from broken tile and mirror. We had just gotten married and asked our family members for money to buy a few oriental rugs for the floor as wedding presents. We also bought a few low to the ground pieces of furniture from China. A queen sized futon and a 3/4 size brass bed that was set up as a daybed completed the interior.
Molly: As nice as the yurt turned out I think the Coup de Grace was the hot tub right next to it.
Mike: The hot tub was the tipping point. We would tell people about the yurt and they’d get interested, we told them about the hot tub and they wanted to know when they could come and stay!
Molly: I loved it. We met new and interesting people.
Mike: And my Dad tried to make it into his second home!
The yurt served us well as a guest house. People loved staying in it. So much so that they would tell their friends about it and people we didn’t even know would call us up to see if they might come visit the yurt. Life with the yurt was pretty blissful. A few years passed and we started having all sorts of problems.
Stay tuned to hear about the yurt’s demise and its protracted rebirth.
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